The Rifleman
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The Next Step…
Chapter 44 – The Arrivals
Written by Deanne Bertram

The cool temperatures of November had arrived and found Mark anxiously waiting for the arrival of the afternoon train. Hoping his surprise was going to be worth it.

The train pulled into the station and Mark watched for the livestock car. Other passengers, getting off the train, saw Mark wearing the Deputy badge, stopped and asked questions, the direction to the hotel or the restaurant. Soon Mark felt a hand on his shoulder and turned to see his Uncle Johnny and Aunt Colleen behind him. Family hugs were shared.

“Uncle Johnny, Aunt Colleen, what brings you back to North Fork?” Mark asked.

“A little matter of family,” Colleen answered, as she opened her heavy shawl and showed she was in “a family way”. “Besides, Thanksgiving is only a few weeks away, Johnny and I felt it was time to spend it with family instead of traveling all over the country. Time to think about settling down, too.”

“Congratulations!” Mark exclaimed as he hugged his aunt again.

“Well Mark,” Johnny stated when they were distracted by a horse screaming and men yelling, from the direction of the livestock car. “We heard shortly after we got on board, that we were sharing the ride with a stallion to be delivered to a Mark McCain in North Fork. He’s caused all sorts of commotion each and every time the train’s stopped. You set to retire Blue Boy?”

“Not yet. But Pa’s been thinking on retiring Razor, Uncle Johnny,” Mark answered as they walked towards the livestock car. “I’d sent a wire to Hope’s father, knowing the army gets in a lot of good mounts, that if there was ever a good horse, the army didn’t want, I’d be happy to buy the horse and asked Seth to ship him my way.”

“I tried to get a look at him our first stop, but the wrangler wouldn’t let me in the car,” Johnny stated.

They could hear the horse kicking and snorting. Mark walked up the ramp, with Johnny just behind him. Mark whistled as he saw the horse in the stall. Mark approached the stall and saw a beautiful black, bearing four white legs, up to the knees, with a razor thin blaze running down his nose. The blaze bulged out next to the horse’s nostril, almost giving the blaze the look of a saber. Mark looked his conformation over and liked everything he saw. The horse was a little taller than Razor and larger boned. The horse tried to charge the door to his stall, then reared back.

From the shadows they heard, “You folks better get out of here. He’s a mean cuss,” the wrangler stated as he started to raise a bull whip towards the horse.

“Drop it mister,” Mark answered as he leveled his rifle towards the wrangler. “You’ll not take another whip to MY horse.”

The man looked at Mark and saw the badge. “Your life. All I was supposed to do was feed and water him and make sure he got here. He’s your problem now.” The man turned and walked down the ramp.

Mark took a few minutes to quietly talk to the horse, telling the horse how he hoped he’d come to enjoy his new home. Mark opened the stall door to be greeted by the horse rearing again. Mark stood his ground, he didn’t back up. He looked the horse straight in the eye. “There boy. You’re never going to be mistreated again. Pa will definitely see to that. You just settle down and we’ll get you out of here and over to the livery.” Mark pulled a sugar cube from his pocket. The horse tentatively sniffed Mark’s hand, then lipped the sugar cube. Mark rubbed the stallion over his eye. “Sweet tooth, huh?” Mark asked as the horse started nosing Mark’s pocket, looking for more, as Mark pulled another cube out and gave it to the horse. Mark hooked the lead line to the horse’s halter and motioned for Johnny to step back.

“Want some help there, Mark?” Johnny asked.

“Nah, I think one on one’s going to be best right now. Though, I’d appreciate it if you would see that anyone standing outside gets back. Not sure what he’s going to do when he sees a crowd of people.”

“Sure, Mark.”

Mark led the stallion from the livestock car. Just as they reached the bottom of the ramp, the train whistle blew, causing the stallion to shy and rear, forelegs pawing at the air.

After getting the horse back under control, Mark stated, “Uncle Johnny, I’ll let you and Aunt Colleen get settled at the hotel and I’ll get Blade settled at the livery. My shift will be done in a few more hours. I’ll stop by and we can head home. See you then.”

Mark kept a firm hold on the lead line as people scattered away. With his rifle in one hand and a prancing stallion in the other, Mark headed for the livery.

Nils was there when Mark walked in. “Whew, what a beauty! I always thought Razor was a good looking horse, but his fella. When you gonna tell your Pa?”

“Not exactly sure. First I want Blade to settle down. Keep him here for a while and I can work with him during the afternoons, before I head home,” Mark replied. “I think it’s best if we just let him be for the day. See you got plenty of hay and water for him, thanks Nils.”

“I weren’t nothing Mark. Come by any time,” Nils said. “By the way, was that your Uncle Johnny I saw earlier?”

“Yes, seems he and Aunt Colleen are thinking on settling down and calling North Fork home. Can I borrow the buggy this afternoon to get them out to the ranch?”

“Sure Mark, any time, you know you can.”

“Thanks Nils.”

*****

Mark rode Blue Boy next to the buggy carrying his Uncle Johnny and Aunt Colleen out to the homestead.

“You should know, a lot has changed at the ranch since the last time you were here.”

“Oh?” Colleen asked.

“Hope and I have our own home,” Mark stated.

“Finally got tired of living under your Pa’s roof?” Johnny asked with a smile.

“Guess our letters didn’t catch up with you. There were just too many babies under one roof,” Mark replied.

“Too many babies?” Johnny asked.

“Oh, you’ll get to meet Little Ted, Joshua, and Zachariah when we get home,” Mark answered.

“Triplets?! Who had triplets?” Colleen asked.

“No one, but Hope and I have twin sons, Joshua and Zachariah. They were born the day after Ma gave birth to my brother, Little Ted.”

“Oh, just wait until I get to teasing your Pa,” Johnny stated as he rein slapped the horse to move him along a little faster.

*****

Lucas came out of the barn carrying an ax blade, stopping short as Johnny pulled the buggy to a stop in front of him.

“Hello brother!” he hollered.

“Johnny! Colleen! When did you get in? We didn’t know you were coming!” Lucas happily answered as Johnny climbed over Colleen to jump down and shake hands. It had been so long.

After Johnny assisted Colleen in getting down from the buggy, Mark said he’d tend to the horses. Then he’d bring the family over once he had helped Hope feed and change the boys.

As they entered the house, Johnny stated, “So I understand you’ve been busy. I’ve another nephew!”

Lucas answered, in seeing Colleen remove her shawl, “I see I’m not the only one who’s been busy, brother!”

After hearing their visitors’ arrival, Milly came from their bedroom. Welcoming the family back and asking when Colleen was due.

“Should be some time the end of March, Milly. Mark told us you’ve a son?” Colleen asked.

Milly showed them to the door to their room and introduced them to the sleeping Theodore Scott McCain. “He finally fell asleep just a few minutes ago.”

“Well I’ll be. Lucas, he’s the spitting image of you.” Johnny stated as they quietly returned to the front room. “’Bout time one of your children got to looking like you and not their ma.”

“And Mark said he and Hope have twins?” Colleen asked. “And they were born a day later?”

“Yep.” Lucas stated.

“Can’t get over it. Grandpa Lucas! Knew the day would come, boy, it just doesn’t seem possible,” Johnny stated as he shook his head.

“Tell me about it!” Lucas stated with a laugh. “Come on, what brings you back to North Fork other than showing off your handy work?” Lucas asked his brother-in-law.

“Lucas!” Milly exclaimed.

“Sorry Colleen,” Lucas stated as he lowered his head in apology.

“Milly, don’t fret. Colleen knows how Lucas and I used to be, before he marrie…” Johnny stopped.

Walking to Johnny and placing a hand on his arm, Milly stated, “Johnny, Margaret’s memory doesn’t upset me. I’m thankful to have her memory in this house. She’s part of Lucas and Mark, so that makes her a part of me. As are you. You’re a part of this family and you’ll always be.”

“Thanks Milly,” Johnny stated as he placed a kiss to Milly’s cheek.

“So how long to you plan to stay this time?” Lucas asked. “Before you set to wandering?”

“Lucas,” Colleen answered. “We were thinking about settling in North Fork. To be with family.”

“What about your own family?” Milly asked, looking to Colleen.

“Milly, I love my family dearly, but there’s something about this family that… I just don’t know how to explain, but when Johnny and I found out about our baby, he said we needed to think on settling down and asked where. Before I could even think on it, North Fork popped out of my mouth.”

“Johnny, I never thought I’d see the day you married nor did I ever think I’d see the day you’d call one place home,” Lucas stated as he slapped Johnny on the shoulder.

As they were talking, they heard a small knock on the door from Myra’s room.

“Papa?” Myra called.

Lucas walked to the door and opened it. He knelt down to his daughter.

“Did you finish your nap?”

“Yes. Me come out?” she asked.

“Okay,” Lucas picked Myra up in his arms and carried her to the front room.

“Myra, I’d like you to meet…” Lucas looked to Milly in how to introduce them.

“Uncle Yohnny,” Myra stated.

“You were just a baby the last time he was here. How…” Lucas stated as he looked to Johnny.

“Mark picture,” Myra stated.

“Okay Myra, this is your Uncle Johnny and your Aunt Colleen,” Lucas stated as Johnny took Myra into his arms.

“Well you sure have grown. How’s my favorite niece?” Johnny stated as he lifted Myra high in the air, to her squeal of delight.

“Good girl. Me good girl.” Myra stated as Johnny set her to the floor.

Myra walked over to Colleen and placed her hand to Colleen’s belly and asked, “More brothers?”

Milly and Lucas laughed. Seeing the expression on Colleen’s face, explained that Myra had blurted out in church that Zachariah and Joshua were her brothers as well. She didn’t quite understand the real family relationship.

“Lucas, I can’t wait for the day when you have to clear up that little misconception. But then I guess Colleen and I aren’t helping the matters either. How’s Mark taking everything?”

Seeing Mark and Hope, carrying the boys, walking past the front window, Lucas stated, “We had a rocky patch earlier this summer, but all things considered, life is good.”

Mark and Hope entered the house and introduced Joshua Lucas and Zachariah James to Johnny and Colleen. Again, Myra proclaimed them her brothers.

As Johnny looked at the baby in his arms and the baby in his wife’s arms, he looked to Mark and stated, “Mark, your Ma would be so proud of you. Oh, how I wish Margaret was here to hold them.” Then turning to Milly, “No disrespect meant Milly, it’s just Margaret so loved children. I know how much it tore at her loosing the other baby and leaving Mark an only child. She would have loved being a Grandma just the same.”

“Pa?” Mark quietly asked of Lucas. “Ma had another baby?”

Lucas looked to Mark, Mark had been so young and then there had never been a reason to talk… Lucas excused them from the room. He placed a hand on Mark’s shoulder and walked him to Myra’s room, closing the door behind them. “Mark, I’d told you in the past how for the first month of your life, your Ma was really sick and couldn’t take care of you.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, you were a little over three when we found out we were expecting a second child. But your Ma…, she never fully recovered from having you. She always remained small and a little more on the frail side. She wasn’t as strong as she was before she had you. She was four months into the pregnancy when she miscarried. The doctor told us, she’d never be able to bear another child and if she did, it might kill her. That’s why you become all the more special to your Ma. I never said anything before because… a baby that you never knew, just didn’t seem important to say anything.”

Lucas watched Mark as he tried to understand this new fact of his father’s life.

“Pa, I understand. Do you ever wonder what…”

“Mark, I used to wonder every day. But I finally stopped, after your ma died. Her death struck you so hard, I couldn’t imagine what it would have been like if I’d had two young children to help cope.”

“Pa… I…” Mark started.

“Mark, you don’t need to say anything. The good Lord blessed us with the miracle of life, you. We never regretted having you. I also understood what you were going through when Hope was sick. It brought back all my fears from when I was… Mark, I was as worried for you as you were for Hope. I didn’t want you to go through what I had gone through, in losing a wife. Now, we just need to be thankful for the family we have and love them like there’s no tomorrow.”

“Yes sir. Even more so.” As Mark looked to his father, he asked, “Does Milly know? I mean, she didn’t seem surprised with what Uncle Johnny said.”

“She does. I told her after I found out she was pregnant with Myra and she had kept it a secret. It made our relationship even stronger. There are lots of memories that when Milly was here the first time, I couldn’t tell her, but now that she’s my wife… It’s only proper that she understands why I feel or act the way I do. Especially when it comes to her and our family.”

*****

In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, Lucas helped Johnny and Colleen look over several homes that were for sale in North Fork. Johnny had accepted a part time job working with Nils at the livery as well as working at the Feed and Grain. Who better than a former rodeo rider to help people with the selection of horses or feed. As well as planning to hire out to Lucas during the spring and fall, for planting and harvesting. Lucas then introduced Johnny and Colleen to John Hamilton and vouched for them when they inquired about a loan for what portion of the purchase price, they didn’t have money to cover.

Afterwards, they stopped at Lou’s for lunch.

“Well, I hear the McCain Clan is ever growing again. Soon, you’ll be taking over the whole town,” Lou stated with a twinkle in her eye. “Johnny, Colleen, we’re glad to hear you’ll be calling North Fork your home.”

“Thanks Lou. We’re really looking forward to living here and raising our child,” Johnny stated as he reached over and patted Colleen’s pregnant belly.

“Then, you’re invited to the Drako, McCain, Torrance, and Gibbs Thanksgiving feast here at the hotel. The men get the dining room organized and the women spend the afternoon in the kitchen, cooking and trying to keep the men folk out of the food, until its ready!”

*****

Thanksgiving morning arrived with the McCain families arriving in town. Lucas and Mark walked their families into the hotel, then he and Mark took the team over to the livery. As they led the horses inside, Lucas noticed the new horse. After placing the team in their stalls, Lucas walked over to look the new horse over.

“Wow, Nils sure has one fine horse here Mark,” Lucas stated. The horse stuck his head over the half wall and sniffed at Lucas, as he began scratching the horse over the eye and continued eyeing the horse over.

“Pa, why don’t you go on in and give him a real good once over,” Mark stated, trying to hide a smile from his face.

“No Mark. I don’t think it would be proper. He’s not my horse.”

“Actually Pa, he is yours.”

“Mark?”

“Pa, if you want him, he’s yours. He arrived the same day the Uncle Johnny and Aunt Colleen did. I’ve been letting him settle in and doing some ground work with him during the afternoons, when I’ve been in town. I’ve been trying to figure out when to present him to you.”

After seeing the expression on Lucas’ face, Mark continued, “Pa, he’ll turn three come spring. Hope’s father shipped him over. After you said you were thinking on retiring Razor and before Hope took ill, I wired Seth, inquiring about good horses and if they received any that were too good for the Army, I’d be interested in buying one. Well, Blade here was the best horse to come through.”

“Mark you really shouldn’t have done this. You should have saved your money to spend on your family.”

“Pa, you are my family.”

Pulling Mark into a hug, “Son, I don’t think I could have found as good a horse as him. Thank you. Blade you say. You named him?”

“No, Seth did. His blaze almost looks like a Saber. Razor and Saber sounded too close alike, so he called him Blade.”

“Well, come on, before Micah, Johnny, and your Uncle Johnny start yelling that we made them do all the heavy work.”

*****

Upon their arrival at the restaurant, Lucas announced Mark’s gift to everyone.

“So that’s what was taking you so long. Kinda figured it might be. That’s why we been sitting around, waiting for you two to help with the heavy work,” Micah stated as he stood up from his seat. “Okay men, we got to make this look like we know what we’re doing. Can’t have the women folk chastising us.”

After arranging the tables and chairs, setting the tables, and bringing in firewood for the fireplace, the men folk started to sit down and relax.

“Not quite so fast, a few of you have youngsters that need to be taken upstairs. Bottles fed, diapers changed, and children put down for naps. We think you should tend to them. You can take them from the kitchen and up to room ten. And you Mr. Gibbs, you can help by taking your niece upstairs and put her down for a nap,” Lou stated.

“Me?” Johnny exclaimed.

“Yes, good practice for what’s to come in the next few years,” Colleen called from the doorway.

Seeing Micah smiling in his chair, Hattie called, “And you, Marshal Torrance, you can just help Mark with one of his two.”

“They’re his two, not…” Micah started.

After hearing the rest of the women in the kitchen laughing, Drako stated, “Men I think we best do as they request. They hold the ace. They can refuse to feed us later.”

“Well you know they’re already planning for us to do the dishes,” Mark started to complain.

“Son, stop while we’re ahead,” Lucas said with a laugh.

*****

Later that afternoon, the ladies brought a wonderful feast to the dining room. Before anyone could take their seat, after Lucas said grace, Mark said, “Pa, there’s one tradition that’s been missing for a long time. A tradition that Uncle Johnny told me about.”

Lucas looked from Mark to Johnny, who nodded.

“Well, since this is the Drako, McCain, Torrance, and Gibbs Family Thanksgiving feast, maybe you should start, Johnny,” Lucas replied.

Johhny Gibbs took a step forward from where he stood and spoke, “What Colleen and I have to be thankful about, the good Lord has seen fit for my wife to bear us a child next year. And we look forward to calling North Fork our home.”

“Drako,” Lucas stated. “You’re next.”

Johnny Drako took a step forward, “What Lou and I have to be thankful about, such wonderful friends and an ever growing family.”

“Johnny!” Lou exclaimed, allowing her Irish brogue to shine through. “I was going to tell you tonight, how…? Did Doc Burrage say…?”

“Wife, your temper softens when you’re with child. Don’t you think I’d know?” Drako stated with a ‘devilish’ smile on his face.

Hearty congratulations were given from those present.

“Micah,” Lucas said.

“What Hattie and I have to be thankful about, living in a town like North Fork and calling it home. But more importantly, realizing, it doesn’t matter how old you are… Love is grand,” Micah stated as he gave Hattie a kiss on the cheek. “But there’s one more item. Most of you know that I’ve been thinking of stepping down as Marshal. It’s been a long time and… well, North Fork deserves the best and you’ve got it, in my two Deputies, Johnny Drako and Mark McCain. I’ll help out when there’s a need, but I want my stepping down to be on my terms, not because some outlaw forces me to. I plan to make it official after the first of the New Year.”

“Micah,” Lucas stated. “You’ve been a loyal defender of this town. I know you’ve trained your deputies well and that North Fork will be in good hands.”

Then turning to Mark, “Mark, I think that leaves you.”

“Pa, if I may, I’d like to go last.”

Looking carefully into his son’s eyes, Lucas agreed. “What Milly and I have to be thankful for…, I’m thankful for my eldest son. Seeing him grow up from a young boy to become a man. I’m thankful to a woman who understands my past and was willing to accept it as she became my wife. We’re thankful for our two youngest children. The blessings of laughter in our house. We’re thankful I, we have a wonderful daughter-in-law and two blessed grandsons. And friends such as you.”

Mark stepped forward and pulled Hope to his side, placing an arm around her waist. “What Hope and I have to be thankful for… First, I know it wasn’t easy growing up, just Pa and me. I’m honored to grow into a man he and others say they can be proud of, Lord knows how hard Pa tried.” Mark waited for the laughter to subside. “Then there’s Milly -- better late than never. Ma, it’s really great to have a mother and I want to thank you for accepting me as your son and giving me a sister and a brother. Then there’s my wife, Hope. Growing up, I always dreamed of being a rancher, just like Pa. Now, I’m a rancher and a deputy, as well as a full time husband and father.” Mark continued, looking into Hope’s eyes. “Never could I imagine life being married or having children, until you came into my life. Now, I can’t imagine life without you. We have two blessed sons.” Then looking around the group, “But more importantly, we have an expanded family that most people wouldn’t understand. Though there are a few members of our family missing, I ask the Good Lord to watch over Seth, Ethan and Annie Lane. …Over the years, we’ve commented at one time or another how much we consider each other as family. I’d like to propose, the ‘considering’ ends today… Today, we are family and that is truly something to be thankful for.”

There wasn’t a dry eye in the room as Mark finished. “Amen” was heard from everyone. As the group was just finishing sitting down, the train whistle could be heard arriving at the depot. Mark and Johnny stood.

“Johnny, Mark not today. Please?” Lou pleaded.

“Lou, tradition is tradition. We’ll be back in a few minutes. Everyone go ahead and fill your plates,” Johnny stated as they excused themselves.

Johnny and Mark pulled on their jackets and hats, while Johnny picked up his gun belt and Mark, his rifle, and headed to the train station. As they came to the caboose, Jesse stated, “Sorry we’re running a little late today. We were under orders to wait for a special delivery for you Mark. They’re getting their horses from the livestock car. Oh, you might want to go ahead and see to the woman waiting in the depot.”

Mark walked into the depot and tapped the woman on the shoulder. As she turned, he called, “Annie?!” as he proceeded to hug her.

“You know, some men might take offense to another man, accosting their wife, Mark,” Ethan called from the doorway. “How are you Mark? Did we a make it in time for dinner?”

“Sure, we just sat down, but how’d you know? If we’d of known you were coming, we would have waited,” Mark answered.

“Hope wrote in her last letter about your Thanksgiving feast.” As they stepped from the depot, Mark introduced Annie to Johnny. They stopped at the livery and put the horses up, prior to proceeding to the hotel. Before he left the stable, Seth stopped by the stall Blade was in. “My, he’s filling out. I think I was right in sending him to you for Lucas.”

“Does Hope know you’re coming?” Mark asked.

“No, seems we kind of like surprising her, and you,” Seth stated. “I hope we’re not causing too much inconvenience.”

“Inconvenience, I want to see my nephews and I don’t care how much we inconvenience the parents,” Ethan stated. And for that he received a sound elbow in the ribs from his wife.

“Say Mark,’ Seth stated. “Have you told Lucas about Blade?”

“I did when we arrived in town this morning. He stood admiring him when we were putting up our team. Tried to get him to go look him over, that’s when I told him Blade was his.”

“Men, you can either stand out here talking horses all day long or you can accompany me to the restaurant,” Annie called, chastising the men.

Mark and Johnny entered the restaurant and started to pull another table from the side and place it in the middle with the others, then they picked up and brought over three more chairs.

“Johnny,” Lou started to ask. “What’s this all about?”

“We found a few strays, straggling in on the train. They looked like they could use some of good cooking. They’d been on the train for quite a while.” Johnny answered.

Mark stepped to Hope and whispered in her ear. Hope turned in her chair and a large smile crossed her face. Mark pulled out her chair as she stood and then ran to greet the rest of her family.

“Everyone, as I said. This is one very large family gathering and it just got bigger. Everyone, I think you’ll remember Seth Lane, Hope’s Father. As well as Ethan. And I’d like to introduce to you Ethan’s wife, Annie.” Mark continued to introduce Annie to everyone present.

Everyone took their seats. Lucas carved the turkey and handed out the plates. Then bowls of mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, and cranberries, and stuffing, and plates of bread and butter were passed. Conversations varied among those present as all enjoyed their Thanksgiving Day.

*****

After dinner was finished, Mark stood and started collecting dishes.

“A deputy doing dishes?” Annie asked.

“Yep, seems the women feel us men folk don’t work nearly as hard as they do today. So, the men folk get to clear the tables and do the dishes, while the ladies get to relax and chat. Though to me, they did just fine chatting while they were cooking.”

“Mark McCain!” Hope exclaimed.

“I was just explaining, so no one would laugh when they see a deputy with dishpan hands, later. You best hope no trouble breaks out in town tonight. Not sure if after washing all the dishes, my wrinkled hands will be able to handle my rifle.”

Seeing the women start giggling, Lucas stood and said, “Come on son. You’ll get no relief from these good women, until the task is completed.”

*****

While the men folk were ‘stuck’ in the kitchen, Lou, Milly, Hattie, and Hope went upstairs. “Annie, if you’d join us?” Hope asked. “Colleen, why don’t you keep my father and brother company. We’ll be back in a moment.”

Shortly all five women came back down stairs, each one with a child in their arms.

Hope and Annie walked to Ethan and Seth. “Father, Annie has Joshua. Ethan, this is Zachariah.” Hope handed her son to her brother. All the other children were introduced as well.

*****

Later that evening, Mark stated it was time for him to walk the town and asked Seth if he would join him.

As they neared the church, Mark stopped. “Sir, I owe you an apology for what happened after the boys were born. Pa never said how much longer you stayed after I ran. But I want you to know, I’m ashamed for my actions.”

“Mark,” Seth stated. “I experienced firsthand what Hope’s mental state was, the day it all began. She didn’t even want me around. Then your Pa told me what happened in Romero and before, with Micah and Johnny. I was upset, in the beginning, when you ran away from my daughter. Your parents keep me posted via wire in how Hope was doing. Lucas wrote me a lengthy letter after your return. It took time, but I came to understand you were dealing with some pretty strong worries and doubts about yourself.” Then placing a hand on Mark’s shoulder, he said, “Mark, I accept your apology. What matters is, you returned to my daughter and my grandsons. And what I’ve seen today, I feel you did a lot of growing up when you were out there. You’re so much more confident and assured of yourself, than you were before.”

“Don’t know if I really grew up when I was gone, but I’ve done a lot since I got home. I’ve spent a lot of nights, when I first came back, talking with Hope. And during the days, when Pa and I were out working the ranch, I talked with him a lot. Sir, I can’t imagine life without Hope or the boys and I’ll never run away again. That, I can promise you.”

“I know, Mark.”

“Sir, if I may. How much of Hope’s life do you remember from before?”

“I don’t understand what you’re asking?”

“Seth, the beginning of October, Hope contracted chicken pox. She was extremely sick, more so than any of the children who contracted the illness. Doc said she could have died.”

“Mark?!”

“Ma told me later that Pa tried to wire you, but was informed you were out on patrol and wouldn’t be back for two weeks. By that time, she was recovering. Do you remember… are there any other illnesses that we need to be especially careful around Hope?”

“Mark, I honestly don’t remember. I know she’d have colds every now and then and I remember measles and scarlet fever. I’m sorry I can’t be any more help.”

“That’s okay. We just have to be prepared to treat Hope as soon as the boys show any symptoms.”

*****

Word had gotten out and a large crowd gathered around the corral at the livery, the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Everyone watched as Mark let Blade into the corral. “Not sure what all the fuss is about,” Mark stated.

Johnny Gibbs walked up to Mark and answered, “Don’t you remember when your Pa was trying to break Duster for you? How exciting it was?”

“Sure, but I’ve been working with Blade and I don’t think he’s as ornery as Duster was. I’m mean, sure he’s a stallion, but he’s not as wild or as old as Duster was when we tried breaking him.”

“Anyway, a horse breaking is as good an excuse to get the men folk out of their homes and away from their wives,” Johnny stated as he slapped Mark on the shoulder. “You want me first up?”

“No thanks, Uncle Johnny. This is my present to Pa, so I guess I should do it,” Mark replied.

Lucas rode Razor into the corral and took one lead line from Mark. Both Johnny’s, Drako and Gibbs, helped hold Blade still for Mark to mount. Once Mark was in the saddle, both feet in the stirrups, and halter line set, Drako and Gibbs ran away. Blade stood still. Lucas tossed the lead line to Mark and trotted Razor to the railing. The men around the corral started whooping and hollering, trying to entice the stallion to start bucking. Lucas watched, pushed his hat back on his head, as Mark started riding Blade around at a walk. Turning the horse left and right, then stopping him. Mark heeled the horse and he started walking again. Mark heeled the horse a little harder, which caused him to give three good bucks, which sent the men to whooping again. Lucas was pleased that Mark was able to stay in the saddle. After the last buck, Blade started trotting around the corral, changing directions as Mark asked.

Most of the ranchers and town folks left, when they realized there wasn’t to be any real excitement. The rest of Mark’s family stood and watched in amazement. They’d never seen any horse react to having a rider on them for the first time like this horse was. Soon, Mark was loping the horse around the corral, with an occasional buck here and there. Mark halted Blade in the middle and waited for Lucas to ride up and grab a lead line. “Well I never!” Lucas stated.

“Why don’t you try, Pa! Give him a test ride. After all, he is your horse,” Mark suggested as he stepped down.

Mark hopped up on Razor while Uncle Johnny and Johnny held Blade for Lucas to mount. Again the scene repeated itself. “Just ask him lightly Pa.” Within minutes Lucas was walking, trotting, and loping Blade around the corral, still every now and then, the horse threw in a good buck.

After putting their horses in the stalls for the afternoon, Uncle Johnny came up to Mark, “Mark, I’ve never seen anything like that before. He’s had someone else break him, right?”

Seth came up behind Johnny and said, “No, he wouldn’t let anyone put a foot in the stirrup at Fort Sam.”

“So you sent my son a rogue horse to give to me?” Lucas asked, not quite believing.

“No. I had a feeling that Mark could bring the horse around. I knew this horse was too good for the army. He deserved someone better than most of the wranglers we have to break the horses.”

Ethan came up and congratulated Mark on taming the stallion and asked him how.

“I just took my time, let him investigate all the equipment and took everything gradually. I’ve put weight in the stirrups and I’ve pulled myself up and laid across the saddle, but today was the first time I’ve sat on him. Honest,” Mark swore.

“Men, I can tell ya, I’ve watched everything Mark’s done with this horse and today is the first time anyone’s rode him,” Nils said as he wiped his hands on a rag.

*****

As they were heading to the restaurant for lunch, Percy Bullock stopped the group asking if they knew where Doc was.

“I saw Thadd heading over to the General Store a little while ago,” Micah offered. “Anything wrong with Tessa or Mabra?”

“No, no, they’re fine, but Abigail ain’t. She was visiting us and started not feeling too good,” Percy replied as he headed to the General Store.

Mark and Lucas headed over to the boarding house. Inside, they could hear Abigail screaming and found her laying on her side in the parlor. Tessa cradling her head in her lap.

“Mrs. Tolliver, do you have a sheet to cover her and towels to wrap the baby?” Lucas asked.

“Yes, yes, I’ve got some,” she replied.

“Go get them,” Lucas stated. Then turning to Tessa, “Tessa, Thadd should be here in a few minutes. Just keep talking to her like you’re doing. It may not seem like much, but it is comforting.”

Mark ran to the kitchen and started warming some water in order to bathe the baby afterwards. He returned to the parlor to hear Tessa stating, “Mr. McCain, I can’t do this. I’m no good at this kind of thing. I hate blood, please, don’t make me stay.”

“It’s okay Tessa,” Mark stated as he picked up Abigail’s head so Tessa could get up, then he laid Abigail’s head back in his lap. Brushing her hair from her face, talking, hoping he was comforting her. Mark took Abigail’s hand as a strong contraction hit. “It’s okay, Abigail, just squeeze my hand.”

As Tessa ran upstairs, the front door opened, Thadd and Percy ran in. “Percy, Tessa ran upstairs,” Lucas stated. “I think she could use your comfort, go on boy, get upstairs.”

“Thadd,” Mark stated. “Do you want to move her to the clinic?”

“I wish she were there, but I don’t want to parade her through the streets. Mrs. Tolliver, I’m sorry that your parlor is going to be occupied for a while. Could you heat some water?”

“I’ve already got a couple pans on the stove,” Mark replied. “But you probably want to keep them from boiling.”

“Thadd, do you want me to go get any of the women to help you instead of Mark and me?” Lucas asked.

“No. I could use some friends here with me. Mark, help me roll her onto her back. Abigail, we’re going to roll you to your back. Just breathe in deep. Mark on three, one, two, three.”

As they were turning her another contraction struck and she started to resist, Abigail wanted to stay on her side. “Abby, please, we have to get you onto your back. Mark, again on three, one, two, three.”

This time Abigail didn’t fight them. “Mark sit her up more, you’ll be her support. When contractions start, help sit her up more, in between, let her rest back against you.”

“Abigail, just breathe and try to relax in between contractions. When they hit, you need to start pushing, if need be, just keep squeezing Mark’s hand to. Mark, I’m sorry,” Thadd stated. Keeping up a running litany.

Lou came into the parlor and took hold of the sheet Lucas had been holding up. Shoo’ing Lucas out of the parlor. “Weren’t no place for a man to be anyway. Get on home to your family,” Lou stated. “Why isn’t Mrs. Tolliver or someone else in here, instead of Mark. This isn’t no place for him.”

“Lou, right now, Mark is fine where he is. I want him where he is. Just hold the sheet up, if you please.”

Hattie arrived a short time later and took the sheet from Lou. Lou rinse a towel in water and wiped the perspiration from Abigail’s face.

As night fell, Mrs. Tolliver lit the lamps around the house and brought them into the parlor. Abigail’s contractions continued until after three o’clock in the morning, when a rather strong contraction struck.

“Come one Abby, one more push, one more push and our baby will be here.”

“I can’t. I’m too tired,” Abigail pleaded.

“Mark, when the next contraction strikes, I want you to help push down on Abigail’s belly, from the top of her belly and push towards her pelvis. We need to help the baby out if Abigail can’t push hard enough.”

Abigail screamed again. “Now, Abigail, Mark, push!” Thadd demanded.

Mark pushed as directed, praying to God he was doing good. He felt Abigail’s finger nails tear into his forearms as she fought against the pain.

“It’s a girl, Abby! It’s a girl!” Thadd yelled. He tied off the umbilical cord and cut it. He held his daughter upside down and gave her a good smack on the behind. With the first smack nothing, happened. Thadd smacked the baby again, this time, his daughter protested loudly. He handed the baby to Hattie and told her to clean the baby and then wrap her in towels. Mrs. Tolliver led the way to the kitchen.

“Mark, go ahead and lay Abigail backwards. Let her rest against you. It’ll be a few more minutes to take care of her and clean her up.”

Mark let Abigail rest back against him, saw her breathing heavily. He took a damp cloth offered by Lou and wiped the sweat off Abigail’s face. He watched as her breathing returned to normal.

Once Thadd was finished his task, he asked Mark to help him lift and carry Abigail and lay her down on the couch. Shortly, Hattie returned with a bundle in her arms. Lou quickly scurried Mark from the parlor and told him to get to the jail and get some sleep. As he left, he heard Thadd talking to his wife, helping her position their daughter so she could nurse for the first time.

*****

Lucas arrived at the boarding house, after dropping Milly, Hope, and the children off in front of the church the following morning, curious how Abigail, Thaddeus, and their baby were, and wondering where Mark was.

“All three are doing fine. They’re sleeping in the parlor,” Lou stated.

“I take it Mark’s upstairs?”

“Lucas, I don’t know where Mark went after I pushed him out of here,” Lou stated.

“Well, when was that?”

“It was after three this morning. I’m sure he’s fallen asleep over at the jail. Why don’t you check there.”

“I did. That’s when Johnny and Micah told me you were over here still. Mark wasn’t in the jail when they arrived this morning and he didn’t make it back to the ranch last night.”

“Maybe he went to Hattie and Mica… Guess if he’d gone there, Micah would have known. Lucas I’m sorry,” Lou stated as she heard the baby crying inside. “If I see him, I’ll tell him you’re looking for him.”

Lucas turned and walked to the livery. Blue Boy was still in his stall, so Lucas knew Mark hadn’t left town. ‘But where can he be?’ Lucas thought to himself as he climbed back down from checking the hayloft. Finally, he returned to the Marshal’s Office.

“Any luck, LucasBoy?” Micah asked.

“No, I don’t know where he could be.”

“Well, maybe he found someplace to curl up and sleep,” Johnny offered.

“But where?”

Johnny was trying to get Lucas to sit down when Reverend McCafferty walked into the office. “Good morning. Micah, I wanted to report that when I arrived at the church for services this morning, I found the back door broken in.”

“Was anything taken, Reverend,” Micah asked.

“No, nothing was taken, but whoever it was, left this for you on the alter Johnny.” Reverend McCafferty handed a note to Drako.

“Johnny?” Micah asked as he watched Johnny open the envelope and pull out a note.

“All it says is, ‘I’m out and I’m here’”.

“Reverend, thank you for bringing the note over,” Micah said. “I think you should return to the church, it’s almost time for services. Lucas, why don’t you go back with him, Johnny and I’ll keep and eye open for Mark. I’m sure he just fell asleep somewhere.”

*****

Lucas and the Reverend were rounding the corner of the church when they saw five riders stop in front of the church. As they dismounted, they pulled their rifles out. Two of the men walked to the top of the steps and closed the doors of the church. They turned around and nodded. Lucas pushed Reverend McCafferty back against the building.

“Reverend, back to Micah’s, now!” Lucas urgently whispered.

*****

Micah, Johnny and Lucas watched as three men walked down the center of the street, towards the Marshal’s Office.

“DRAKO!” the middle one yelled.

“Lucas, Micah, this isn’t your fight,” Johnny stated.

“Not our fight?” Micah repeated.

“That middle one is Quince Merriweather. We rode together a long time ago. I didn’t care for one of his plans so I rode separate. Heard later he and a few of the others got caught and sent to prison. Now we know who left the note at the church for me.”

“Johnny, as a deputy of this town, your fight is our fight,” Lucas stated. And his look told Johnny they weren’t going to take no for an answer. Micah pulled out a badge and tossed it to Lucas.

The three left the Marshal’s Office and stepped to the street.

“What do you want Merriweather?” Johnny hollered.

“You, and this town. Seems you owe it to me.”

“I owe you nothing. It was your plan. I wasn’t there,” Drako replied.

“Maybe, but maybe you told the law. Don’t matter, I’m taking the law into my own hands. No law man’s going to push me around again. Today, I do the pushing. See, I got me my own badge.” With that, Merriweather opened his jacket and showed a badge pinned to his vest.

Johnny, Micah, and Lucas watched as the one called Merriweather rubbed his shirt sleeve over the badge.

“You know Drako, seems this town’s got a lot of deputies. Right now, one of them ain’t a deputy any more. Drako, maybe you should have taught your deputy to carry a hand gun instead of a rifle. Got me a real pretty badge and rifle, to boot from him. He sure knows how to fight like a hellion. Don’t he, Pete.”

Shock ripped through all three when they realized who Merriweather was referring to, as they watched the big man to the left of Merriweather rub at his cheek.

Johnny told Lucas, “Lucas, keep quiet and keep your temper. He wouldn’t have killed the boy. If so, he’d of been bragging on it.”

“Real pretty badge, eh?” Johnny called out. “But the badge doesn’t make the man. It’s the other way around, and I don’t think you make the badge.”

“Maybe, but I want you out of this town and you’ll make me the Marshal,” Merriweather stated as he rubbed at the badge.

“This town deserves better than the likes of you.”

“Drako, Drako, you know the only way I’ll let you stay in this town is six feet under. Your ‘respectable’ friends are welcome to stay, but you… You’ll have to leave. Me and my boys will give you, say an hour to think it over.”

Johnny, Micah, and Lucas watched as the three headed to Sweeney’s and sat down in the chairs outside the doors. They stepped back to the Marshal’s office.

“You really think they have Mark and he’s okay?” Micah asked.

“I’m sure of it. Quince knows how to use a bargaining chip. If Mark was dead, he’d be bragging on it. Right now they’ve got him hidden somewhere.”

From the window they watched the men, talking and laughing. A knock was heard at the back door to the Marshal’s office, Micah opened the door and allowed Reverend McCafferty inside.

“Lucas, from what I can tell, they’ve not entered the church. They’re just preventing anyone else from entering or exiting,” the Reverend informed them.

“So Johnny,” Lucas stated. “What do we do now?”

“We’ll have to let them make their next move,” Johnny stated. “I’m sorry Lucas, but yours isn’t the only family involved this time.”

*****

An hour later, Merriweather and his men stood from their chairs and walked to the street again.

“Hey Drako! What’s it going to be? You riding for the hills? Leaving the town to me?”

“Can’t do that,” Drako replied as they walked back to the street.

“Then a standoff is what we have. Who’s going to draw first? And if there’s gunfire, does that signal the others to start shooing?” Before he even finished speaking, Merriweather and his men went for their guns.

After the last shot was fired, they saw three men lying dead on the ground. They heard several more shots off in the distance. Drako and Lucas got to their feet, looked over and saw Micah rolling over to sit up. “Guess I was a little too slow,” Micah stated as he poked a finger through the hole in the side of his vest. “Seems Hattie’s going to need to do some mending.”

“Micah, you hit?” Lucas asked as he rushed to his friend’s side.

“No, just my vest.”

“Guess you weren’t too slow, if all they got was your vest,” Drako said as he started walking towards the dead outlaws. Coming from the church, they saw Johnny Gibbs, Oat Jackford and others running towards them, guns drawn.

Drako bent over and pulled the badge from Merriweather’s vest, picked up Mark’s rifle, then called out, “I want every available man, in the saddle and at the church in ten minutes. They have Mark McCain hidden somewhere.”

Before heading out, Micah ordered several men to pull the dead carcasses off the street and get them to the undertakers. To those remaining, he said, “Drako, you take five men and head out after the two who rode away. The rest of you, we’ll back track, and look for Mark.”

*****

As the posse gathered in front of the church, Micah watched as Lucas walked from the church, followed by Milly and Hope, crying and praying for the posse to find Mark.

As the posse rode away, Reverend and Maggie McCafferty helped Milly and Hope get the children over to the hotel. Hattie had wanted them to be at her home, but they insisted on staying at the hotel. They knew it was closer to Doc’s, as they tried to keep their fears to themselves.

Lou arrived shortly, after hearing the news. She set to work fixing food for those waiting, trying her best to keep Milly and Hope occupied and their minds off their worries, by telling them about the birth of Thadd and Abigail’s daughter.

*****

Lucas back tracked the outlaws, following the tracks they left when they were heading into town, but eventually lost them as they crossed a grassy plain.

“Damn,” Lucas stated as he led Blade back to the group.

“Okay men,” Micah hollered. “We spread out from here, head towards the trees. Anyone finds Mark, set out a yell.”

They continued to search as the sun crossed the afternoon sky.

*****

Micah and Lucas had stopped to talk when they heard a yell coming up the line to their right. They raced their horses and arrived to see a figure hanging by his wrists from a tree, with Nils holding him up, and Stevan Griswald reaching up from his horse to cut the rope. Lucas jumped from Blade and ran to Nils, lifting Mark a little higher. Then feeling Mark’s full weight in their arms, hearing a groan, they laid Mark to the ground. Lucas removed the gag from his son’s mouth, as Mark started to regain consciousness.

“Mark, can you hear me?” Lucas asked as he slapped Mark’s face.

“Pa?” Mark asked as he moaned again.

Stevan finished cutting the ropes from Mark’s wrists and ankles.

“Micah, bring me a canteen,” Lucas ordered. The searchers gathered around the scene. Thankful for their success. Seth handed his canteen to Lucas as Micah was talking to the others, telling them to head on home. Asking that Stevan let Milly and Hope know that Mark was found safe. “We’ll return after Mark’s had a chance to recover for a little bit.”

Mark moaned as he tried to take the canteen from his Pa. “Mark, where does it hurt son?”

“My arms. Pa. My shoulder,” Mark answered as he rested back against Lucas’ chest. Lucas held the canteen for his son to drink.

Micah returned to them and looked Mark once over. “Boy, you’re going to have one nasty black eye come tomorrow. Can you tell us what happened?”

Mark proceeded to say how Lou had shooed him out of the boarding house. He wasn’t really tired, so he decided to walk the town. Next thing he knew, two men had guns on him. “One tried to take my rifle and guess I should have remembered what you said, not to go looking for trouble. Well, I wasn’t really thinking and I took a swing at him, I connected with my first punch, but he was a big man. And we fought for a while before the other knocked me out.”

“Yeah, we saw your handy work earlier,” Micah stated. “Not sure whose black eye is worse, boy.”

“Pa? What did they want? They never said anything before they left me hanging from that tree,” Mark said.

“They were old friends of Johnny Drako’s. Seems they wanted to drive Johnny out of town and take over,” Lucas answered.

“Don’t worry boy. Three of them are dead and the two that got away, well, Drako and the others are on their trail,” Johnny Gibbs stated as he and Ethan approached after collecting the horses standing around the clearing.

After allowing Mark to rest for half an hour, Lucas asked, “You think you’re up to riding double?”

“Sure Pa.”

Lucas took Mark by the left arm to help him up. As he lifted, an involuntary groan escaped Mark, as he fell back to the ground, clutching his shoulder.

“Mark, let me take a look.” Johnny examined Mark’s shoulder, then turning to Micah, “You still have that flask of yours?”

“Johnny?” Lucas asked.

“Riding bronc’s, I’ve dislocated my shoulder a few times in my younger days. Sorry Lucas, but Mark’s shoulder is dislocated. Thought maybe I could give him some of Micah’s whiskey to help numb the pain before I reset the shoulder.”

“Sorry, Johnny. I gave up carrying my flask a long time ago.”

“Mark,” Lucas said. “When did they do this to you?”

“They didn’t. I was struggling to try to get myself out of the tree and I dislocated my shoulder, myself. I guess I passed out when I felt it happen,” Mark replied to his father. Then turning to his uncle, “What if you just place my arm in a sling and wait for Doc to set it?” he asked as he held his arm in place.

“Sorry nephew. It’s best to reset it as soon as possible.” Then turning to Lucas and Seth, “You’ll have to help hold him while I do this.”

Lucas and Seth held Mark tight. “Mark, here, bite down on this piece of wood. I’m really sorry, because I know how much this is going to hurt. But believe me, once I…” he reset it before he finished his sentence. Mark screamed before he passed out from the pain.

“Lucas, I’m sorry. It had to be done. He’ll be alright, though you might want to get his arm in a sling while he’s unconscious.”

About ten minutes later, Mark woke. “Sorry Mark. You forgive me?” Johnny asked.

Mark smiled weakly and nodded, as Lucas and Seth helped him to his feet.

As they walked to the horses, Mark realized Lucas had brought Blade instead of Razor.

“If you remember, today is Sunday and I brought our family to town in the buckboard. Blade was the only saddle horse I owned, who was in town.”

“If you don’t mind Pa, I think I’ll ride double with Uncle Johnny. His horse is a little bit smoother ride than Blade. Besides, Blade doesn’t need both our weights on his back, just yet.”

Seth and Ethan held the other horses, while Micah held Johnny’s horse, Johnny mounted first and then Lucas helped Mark get on board, behind his Uncle. The six rode for North Fork.

“LucasBoy, I’m going to ride on ahead and let Doc Burrage know what’s up. I’ll see you when you get to town.”

*****

Hope, Milly, and Annie were anxiously waiting inside the clinic when their men arrived. Mark wrapped his good arm around his wife as he gave her a hug and then kissed her on top of the head. “I’ll be all right Hope. What say you let the doc have a look at me?” Hope took a step away and Mark wiped his thumb across her face to wipe away her tears.

Doc Burrage gave Hope a bottle of witch-hazel, “Just rub some of this around the bruise, but make sure not to get any in his eye. As for the shoulder, Johnny, you reset it nicely. Mark, I want your arm in a sling, except for when you’re walking the town, you can stretch it around some then. And if you can, I want you to ice it down four times a day for about twenty minutes each time, for the next two days. I’ll let you know if you should continue when you come back Wednesday morning.”

“So does this mean that I’m out a deputy?” Micah asked.

“No, just don’t want him getting into any fist fights or chopping wood, for the next week. Except when walking the town, I want your arm in the sling until Saturday,” Thadd stated.

“Now Mark, remove your shirt, I’m sure that during your little fist fight, you took a few blows to the ribs. Let me see ‘em.”

After examining Mark’s ribs, “Well, they are a little tender, but I don’t think any are broken or separated. Just a good bruising. Hope, make sure you use the witch-hazel here on his left side too.” Then noticing the scratches on Mark’s forearms, “Mark what happened here?”

“Your wife. If you remember, I was helping to push when the last contraction hit. Well, Abigail kind of dug her fingernails in.”

“Let me get some ointment on those as well as the rope burns on your wrists.” After applying the ointment and saying it would be best to leave them unbandaged, Thadd stated, “Okay, now that I’ve done my job, if you’ll excuse me, I have a family to get back to.”

“Sorry Doc,” Mark stated. “By the way, congratulations. Have you named her?”

“We kind of thought about Savannah Marie, but we’ve been mesmerized by the whole thing, we haven’t give a name much more thought. It’s quite remarkable, holding your baby in your arms for the first time. But then you know that, don’t you.”

“Thank you, Doc. Why don’t you go back to your family and let me tend to mine,” Hope stated as she started to button Mark’s shirt. Her eyes telling Mark to ‘let her do it’. Lucas tied the sling around the back of Mark’s neck and helped him get his arm inside.

*****

After dinner at the hotel, Mark led his family upstairs to a room. After helping Hope feed and change the boys, and then put them down for the night, he walked down the hall and drew a hot bath. He was stiff and sore from the events of the day. After stripping, he stepped into the tub and lowered himself down, relaxing, letting the heat penetrate his muscles.

Mark closed his eyes, thinking of everything that had transpired, Abigail and Thadd’s baby, the fight, then being strung up by his wrists, having his family find him... He rubbed at his shoulder as he remembered struggling, trying to free himself. He involuntarily shivered as he remembered the pain in his shoulder. Mark’s mind was brought back to present when he felt soft, gentle hands massaging his shoulders, and from behind heard “I was so scared. I thanked God for allowing you to come home, when Stevan brought us word you were found.”

“Hope, I…” Mark started to speak, but Hope moved around to face him.

“Please, let me speak. I wanted you to know, I was so… scared. If something happened to you… and you didn’t come home to us. I needed to tell you before you saw it in my eyes. Mark, I know this is your job and I will thank God for every day he allows us to share. Every time you leave, I pray to God to protect you. I won’t ask you to stop. I understand, this is who you are. I just need you to understand that each time when you are away, I’ll be scared. I don’t want to be left alone.

And when you do come home, I will be more protective of you for a while, and thankful for having you back in my life.”

“Hope, I understand your fears. They’re the same fears I have, but I can’t let my fears stop me from being who I am -- that’s the real lesson I learned after I came home. Hope, I pray to God that he’ll watch over you and the boys, were something to happen. But believe me, Pa and Ma, they’ll be there for you. You’ll never be alone.”

Mark picked up Hope’s hand and kissed it. Hope picked up the sponge and the bar of soap and started to bathe him.

That night, as they laid down in the bed, Mark quickly fell asleep. Hope heard Mark’s breathing indicate he was asleep, she rolled over and watched him. Again, silently thanking God for protecting him, this time. Hope remembered back to the first day they met. Her mind then played out other important days from their lives, the day Mark had really kissed her for the first time. The day he proposed. Their wedding day. That day outside of Fort Sam. The birth of their sons. The day she’d said those hurtful words to him. Then, the day he came home. Then today. “God, Mark’s only been a part of my life for a few years, yet, I can’t imagine life without him. Please watch over him,” she silently prayed as she watched his chest rise and fall while he slept.

She heard the baby’s stir in their cradles. She went to the hotel kitchen and prepared their bottles. Saw the time on the clock; it was after two in the morning. Once the boys were fed, Hope slipped back into bed.

*****

Mark woke to find Hope restlessly sleeping. He quietly dressed and heard his sons stirring. He slipped from the room to find Ethan and Annie entering the hallway from their room.

“Good Morning,” he quietly spoke, “Ethan, Annie, can you help me this morning? I don’t think Hope got much sleep last night and I need to get the boys fed…”

“Sure Mark,” Ethan spoke. “I’d love the chance to look after my, …our nephews.”

As they entered the room, they saw Hope’s restless state.

“Mark, let us take care of the boys. You stay here with Hope. I’m sure she could use you being close to her when she does wake,” Annie whispered.

Mark closed the door behind Ethan and Annie. He removed his boots and gently slipped back into bed. Brushed back a stand of hair from Hope’s face and quietly said, “I’m here love. I’ll always be with you. Shhhh, just sleep.”

*****

Drako and the others returned to town later the day after the shoot out. Drako entered the Marshal’s to see Micah sitting behind the desk, leafing through posters. “Sorry Micah. We lost their trail. I take it you found Mark? Was he okay?”

“We found him late yesterday afternoon, he’s fine, least he will be. Just suffered a dislocated shoulder. His uncle set it after we found him and Doc looked him over last night.”

“So, we’re down a deputy?” Drako asked.

“Na, he’s walking the town right now. Doc said as long as he didn’t get into any fist fights or chop wood for the week, he could still work his shifts.”

“Well, since I’m back, why don’t you head on home. I’m sure Hattie would love to spend some time with you.”

“Thanks Johnny. Think I just might do that. She said we weren’t expecting any children at the day care today. So I just might get some quiet time with my wife.”

“Go and enjoy it!” Johnny stated with a grin as Micah left the office. He smiled even broader when Lou entered the office carrying a basket. “A woman after my own heart.”

“Saw you come back and thought you might be hungry. You didn’t leave with much before you headed out after those men.”

Lou set the basket down on the desk and started to pull out a meal for Johnny.

“Who’s watching Connor while you’re over here?”

“Hope’s at the hotel with the twins and she said she’d watch Connor. She and Mark spent the night, he didn’t want to leave Micah alone in town, in case those men doubled back and Hope didn’t want to leave Mark.”

“I can understand that. Come here woman,” Johnny stated as he placed his hands around Lou’s waist and pulled her to sit on his lap. “I missed you while I was gone. How’s our newest Drako doing?”

“Our newest Drako is doing just fine.”

*****

Mark cleared his throat as he stood in the doorway, eyes averted. “If you two will excuse me?” Johnny and Lou hadn’t heard him enter. Both blushed a little as Lou stood from Johnny’s lap. “Welcome back Johnny, I take it you didn’t catch the other two?”

“We lost their trail late last night. I tried picking it up this morning, but, they took to covering their trail. I’m sorry, Mark.”

“Nothing to be sorry about. If I’d been paying attention instead of walking around in a dream, they wouldn’t have gotten the jump on me. And yesterday wouldn’t have happened.”

“Mark, whether they got the jump on you or not, Quince would have still tried to take the town. Boy, don’t go feeling you’re to blame. Best you get to the café and have lunch with your family, saw Hope and the Lane’s heading that way a few minutes ago.”

“Thanks Johnny, I’ll be back in an hour.”

“See you later Mark,” Lou and Johnny stated together.

Next Step — The Legacy

This is a story based on the TV series The Rifleman
Here are some other great stories. Enjoy!

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